Conducting Your Own Research

One way of studying voting behavior might be to generate a bunch of tables that could be constructed from these data and see what looked interesting. Such a strategy is neither practical nor useful. Tables by themselves tell you very little. They have to be interpreted and explained. This interpretation usually is done in terms of some theory or generalization about how people behave.

To make your research effort more meaningful, and to avoid wasted effort, you need to carefully frame the question you are studying and to be sure that you have some sound reason for studying it. That reason usually is directly related to some theoretical concepts or ideas that you have learned from the work of others. The general rule is to apply what you already know to discover something new.

It is important to explicate why you are looking at a particular set of relationships, because that justification becomes part of the explanation of what the contingency tables tell us. As we have said earlier, political scientists are far more interested in the relationship among variables than they are in the actual percentages of some group that voted one way or another. Relationships help to explain behavior. We especially want to know why the variables are related the way that they are. We also want to know why two variables that some theory predicts should be related might wind up not to be related when we look at the data. Often, the lack of a finding or the fact that two variables are unrelated is just as important as finding that two variables are strongly related, but only when there is a pre-existing theory or hypothesis that predicts that the two variables should be related.

Most research involves hypothesis testing. You should start from a theory developed by reading other people's work, then generate hypotheses from that theory, and then test those hypotheses by comparing your predicted relationships to those resulting from your data analysis. If the data bear out your hypotheses, you can claim some support for the theory; if the data do not support your hypotheses, you conclude that the theory is not supported. In either event, the conclusions are valuable.

Using what you already know about voting behavior, as well as your intuition, you should be able to design a research project that examines some aspect of voting behavior or public opinion. Specifically, you should:

  1. Formulate research questions about the relationships among a set of variables.
  2. Justify the selection of variables and the expectations you have about the connection between the variables.
  3. Test your ideas by obtaining the necessary tables.
  4. Carefully interpret the tables and write up your conclusions.

Although the exercises focused on one dependent variable—who people vote for—there are other possible dependent variables. For example, one might be interested in issue differences between men and women, or in why people think one candidate for office is honest and another one is not, or in what attributes voters consider when they report feeling "warm" or "cool" towards a candidate for office on a feeling thermometer. The data set contains a wealth of variables that can be considered as either dependent or independent variables according to the type of research project you are pursuing.

Some possible research topics are suggested by the above exercises